The 'Thinking' Machine
The Blue Brain
Recently a new type of computer was born in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was built from the bottom up with the information that has been gained in neuroscience. It amounts to 2000 separate processors yielding 22.8 Trillion Operations per second. This does not make it a particularly fast computer. That title is held by Blue/Gene which ran a benchmark at 478 trillion instructions per second last fall. If you'd like to read a very well done article about it, please refer to Out of the Blue by John Leher. It is good reading.
What makes 'Blue Brain' different is that it was built from below not as a computing machine in the traditional sense, but to try to mimic what the human brain does in elemental form.
This is not a new endeavor. Fifty years ago and more people were trying to make computers 'think'. There was much hype about it, but really very little progress. One of the problems was that man tends to define 'thinking' as only done by ourselves and rejecting the Chimps ability to reason or build tools as somehow not 'cricket'.
Thoughts on Thinking
So, much has been made about what thinking really is all about. Many people put up a defensive wall that is built something like this: Thinking is being sentient! That's not very good because sentient just means sensing and reacting to things. Of course they use this term as a catchall for what they mean about thinking. That is, we get a stimulus and we react to it along with our "God Given" gifts.
Others use the better term 'self awareness' to patch up the breech in our wall around the expressly 'human condition' This is a far better way to defend the fort because what self aware means has been debated by philosophers for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. I have no idea what the phrase means. The Eastern Philosophies have a better handle on this because they allow as rules of the game, the 'thinker' to get outside the body and shed the sentient part of ourselves so that part does not trip us up.
You cannot use the word sentient without crossing your fingers, because modern process computers are better than we are at sensing certain things like temperature, electro-chemical changes of a certain type and on a very low level a few visual clues to guide robots. They have not done well in the integration of visual fields, but have made some progress with sound. We are all aware, sadly, of the phone responses to our voice when we are trying to reach a human being.
So we have to kind of leave the definitions of thinking to Google and keep them in the back of our 'mind'.
Our Personal Computer
The computer on which you are viewing this sentence, is called a 'Turing Machine' after the great British Mathematician Alan Turing By definition Turing Machines are extremely basic abstract symbol-manipulating devices which, despite their simplicity, can be adapted to simulate the logic of any computer that could possibly be constructed.
The Quantum Computer
There are other machines like Quantum Computers, which in general are not Turing Machines although it can be shown that you can adapt one to run like your PC
The reason QCs have become so important is that experts are worried that we might reach the physical limits of Integrated Circuit sizes and the miniaturization will reach a sign that says: "Inner Limit". Going below the atom to the Quantum level makes all this change and strangely information can be stored at least theoretically more concisely than in the traditional 0 and 1 architecture of your PC
These machines theoretically can attack problems that are not possible for PCs or normal Super Computers. For example harnessing 100 or so atoms in the right way will be worth all the computers ever constructed running at the same time on certain problems and certain problems only at this time.
Out of the Blue Type Computers
For many years scientists have tried to simulate the brain using normal Turing like machines, with little of no success. The neuroscientists thought it was a waste of time because what the brain did was not well defined. What was known was that it was a complex electro-chemical process. The glowing picture is of a simulated upper layer of a rat brain.
The builders of the Blue Brain decided to build from the ground up with what they knew in a general enough way. They could use what they observed to first look at Blue Brain and then at brains and see how they compared. This process, they hoped, would be iterative in nature and would produce better and better results because Blue Brain would get more and more like a 'real' brain. They had some real hope for success because:
Neurons are electrical processors: They represent information as ecstatic bursts of voltage, just like a silicon microchip. Neurons control the flow of electricity by opening and closing different ion channels, (gate like things) using specialized proteins embedded in the cellular membrane.
It looks like they are gaining some ground. So now you might want to read Out of the Blue, if you have not already.
So What You Say!
I agree, so what? ... but something is changing. Humans are really becoming part of the entire mix. We are morphing in with the machines we use to create a giant brain like we described in "The Last Book" for the Saugeen Times.
In the future we will become a working gear in a machine like the Blue Brain connected up to a Google like landscape of information. Does this cause any spiritual problems? It probably does not.
So back to the original questions about thought and thinking. Have we learned anything? The lessons are that people may be just a part of the process we call thought combined with sentient activities. There is plenty of room for Eastern Philosophy in that.